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Elijah and the Rabbis: Story and Theology

Kristen H. Lindbeck

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Paper, 272 pages,
ISBN: 978-0-231-13081-3
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July, 2010
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Preface: Elijah in Rabbinic Times and Beyond

Elijah has many faces. In Kings he is a zealous prophet of God, in the later prophetic book Malachi a herald of the last days. He appears several times in the New Testament. Elijah’s role in Judaism, however, comes mostly from his character in rabbinic literature. Rabbinic Judaism knows Elijah as herald of the last days, as legal authority, teacher of the wise, and helper of those in crisis. During the medieval period "Elijah’s cup" became part of the Passover Seder. At the Seder, throughout the world, families still open the door for Elijah as herald of the Messiah, and children look eagerly at Elijah’s cup to see if he has sipped any wine. Elijah plays an esoteric role in kabbalah, and a better-known and more homely one as the hero of Jewish folk tales. In these stories Elijah often comes in the guise of a poor stranger, and if he is welcomed he brings benefits and blessings.

This book focuses on the Elijah of the Talmudic period, a time when Elijah first acquired many of his roles in later Judaism. In these centuries the legendary Elijah becomes a recognizable character, a mysterious individual quite different from the Elijah of the Bible. He is partly angelic and partly human, therefore he can connect humankind to God, serving as a supernatural mediator. He teaches wisdom and gives advice, but he can also help people directly, even with material gifts. Elijah, in part, resembles the legendary Christian saints in that he mediates God’s saving power. In rabbinic Judaism, however, Elijah is rarely sent in response to prayer, and he has no role in ensuring anyone’s future salvation, though Christian saints of those days were fulfilling these roles. Elijah comes unpredictably, without warning, to address the problems of this life.

A good example of Elijah as rescuer is the fascinating "antimartyrdom" of Rabbi Eleazar ben Perata (B. Avodah Zarah 17b). This story is set during the second-century Roman persecution of Judaism, but it was written down and perhaps composed many centuries afterward. The story begins when Rabbi ?anina ben Teradion, soon to be a famous martyr, meets Rabbi Eleazar in prison. Rabbi ?anina prophesies that Rabbi Eleazar will escape death because he combined good works with his study of Torah. Encouraged by this prediction, Rabbi Eleazar later lies or blusters his way out of every charge of the Roman court, until only one Roman official remains to accuse him. When this last man stands up to condemn the rabbi, Elijah appears in the form of a Roman noble and tries to dissuade the accuser, and when the accuser does not listen, Elijah comes and tosses him "four hundred leagues." Through its absurdist humor, this story expresses a humanistic point, one rare in religious narrative, at least up until the twentieth century: it emphasizes that martyrs and survivors need not be enemies of one another. Both martyrs and survivors are heroes, each in their own way.

Elijah also serves as a source of privileged information about God. On request, Elijah reports on what God is saying or doing in the heavenly court, providing a fascinating window into rabbinic belief. Twice, for example, Elijah relays that God accepts multiple understandings of a single biblical story, supporting rabbinic belief that Scripture has many meanings. In one of these passages, Elijah says that both rabbis’ ideas "are the words of the Living God" (B. Gittin 6b), making it clear that in the practice of homiletic—as opposed to legal—biblical interpretation every single rabbinic understanding is holy, "words of the Living God." Thus Elijah not only makes a theological point about the legitimacy of competing interpretations, but affirms and strengthens the role of the rabbinic Sages as interpreters of Torah.

Many Elijah stories teach rabbinic values and ethical standards. For example a man with a legal problem brings Rav Anan a gift of fish and convinces him to accept it, even though rabbis were supposed to refuse gifts from potential litigants. Impressed by this thoughtful gift, and the flattery accompanying it, Rav Anan—properly—refuses to try the man’s lawsuit, but—improperly—sends him off to another rabbi with a personal message that he, Anan, is unfit to try the case. The other rabbi, on getting the message, assumes that the enterprising plaintiff is a relative of Rav Anan and therefore shows the man respect. In fact, he shows the man so much respect that his opponent is hopelessly intimidated and justice is not done. Elijah had been in the habit of visiting Rav Anan, but after this he stayed away. Elijah had been teaching the rabbi the mysterious Order of Elijah, so Rav Anan must fast and pray to God for the prophet’s return. When Elijah returns, however, he comes in frightening form, and now Rav Anan must hide in a box to endure his presence and receive his teaching (Ketubot 105b). This story is unusual in naming a specific body of knowledge that Elijah comes to teach and, in the odd and humorous detail of the box, is also unique. The main point, however, is found in other stories: Elijah disappears in order to make the point that the ethical standards required of rabbis are higher than the standards required of others.

The Biblical Elijah and the Rabbinic Elijah

The rabbinic picture of Elijah is based on the biblical Elijah, but it moves beyond him. In a famous passage, the prophet Elijah journeys to the mountain of God and experiences God there, not in wind or earthquake or fire, but in the "still small voice" (1 Kings 19:11–12). Elijah is fed by ravens in the wilderness and revives the widow’s son from death (1 Kings 17:4, 18–22). These are the stories that people like to recall, but the biblical Elijah was also a man of violence. He kills the prophets of Baal with his own hands after they fail to call upon their god (1 Kings 18:40) and he calls down fire from heaven three times to burn up three bands of soldiers that King Ahaziah of Israel sends to fetch him (2 Kings 1:9–12).

The Rabbis of late antiquity held that the biblical Elijah was righteous, but found him too harsh and unforgiving. The Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael, an early midrash from the third century, calls the biblical Elijah the prophet who "seeks the honor of the Father, but not the son" (4). Elijah honors God but not Israel, the midrash explains, because, even after hearing the still small voice of God, Elijah pours out the same stream of complaints in precisely the same words. Untouched by God’s revelation, he repeats, "I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and put your prophets to the sword. I, I alone, am left, and they are seeking to take my life" (1 Kings 19:14, cf. 19:10, based on NRSV and JPS). For most rabbinic midrash, God’s order to Elijah to anoint Elisha as prophet in his place is a punishment. Elijah focused on God and his own troubles, rather than asking God to help the people, and was thus no longer fit to be prophet.

The biblical Elijah has another side, however, in an entirely different book. The prophet Malachi, writing after the return from the Babylonian exile in the late sixth century before the common era, says: "Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD. He shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children and the heart of the children to the fathers, so that, when I come, I do not strike the land with utter destruction." (Mal. 3:23–24; Christian text, 4:5–6). These two verses gained resonance after canonization because they conclude the book of Prophets in Hebrew Scriptures and end the entire Christian Old Testament. Here Elijah comes to call families to reconciliation, so that God’s curse will not strike them on the day of judgment.

Why does Malachi say that God will send Elijah? Because he is available. Unlike an ordinary mortal, Elijah did not die. Instead God took him up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elijah and Elisha, his disciple, were walking and talking, and "Behold! A chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind" (Kings 2:11). For Malachi, and for the Rabbis of Talmudic times, Elijah’s ascension is the necessary but not sufficient cause of his further career. For the Rabbis, as for other people of their time, the righteous dead were very much present, but they were present only with God in the heavenly court or at their grave sites. Only Elijah was free to travel throughout the world, and between heaven and earth, appearing to people in his own form or in disguise.

Thus when the Rabbis of Talmudic times speak of Elijah as historical prophet or messianic herald, they continue and interpret biblical traditions. On the other hand, when they tell stories about Elijah as a supernatural but human figure who helps and advises rabbis of previous generations, they are expressing a new creation, a uniquely rabbinic Elijah found in Judaism to the present day. The Rabbis do not say how Elijah stepped into this role; they simply assume it. Such unstated assumptions are characteristic rabbinic texts. From the Mishnah of the early third century to the Babylonian Talmud about four hundred later, these texts testify to the rebirth of Jewish faith after the destruction of the Temple and the transformation of Judaism into essentially the religion known today. No rabbinic text, however, tells us how Judaism was reborn and recreated. The Mishnah, for example, gives us the basic outline of how to observe Jewish holidays without the Temple, much as they are now observed, and the Talmud expands and elaborates. Yet, aside from a few brief passages in the Mishnah describing limited changes in observance after the destruction of the Temple, the decisions and informally evolving practices behind the development are hidden from us. The same is true for the development of Elijah’s character.

In one brief story in the Babylonian Talmud, however, the midrashic Elijah intersects with the legendary Elijah. Rav Yossi, interpreting Scripture, said, "Father Elijah was a hot-tempered man." In reaction, Elijah stays away for three days. When he returns, Rav Yossi asks him, "Why didn’t you come?" Elijah responds, "You called me hot-tempered." The rabbi, completely unintimidated and far from contrite, tells Elijah, "It is [now] clear that you are hot-tempered, Sir" (B. Sanhedrin 113a–b).

The humor of this story is clear, but exactly how it would have operated in rabbinic times is less so. Is the source of comic incongruity the textual disjunction between rabbinic midrash on the biblical Elijah and rabbinic legends of Elijah in the present? Or did the tellers of the tale want to emphasize the actual disjunction they saw between how Elijah behaved in biblical times and how he behaves now? In Scripture Elijah kills people, but in the present he does not strike Rav Yossi down; he only complains to him and even allows the mortal the last word. Like many stories of Elijah in the two Talmuds, this one is accessible on some levels and mysterious on others. We, as modern readers, smile at Rav Yossi’s chutzpah, but we cannot really know how the story’s audience would have understood it. Does part of its original humor come from their certainty that the encounter really happened? If so, there is an element of relief that Rav Yossi was not punished as well as a strong current of wonder that, through God’s mercy, Elijah is now fully beneficent, if sometimes irritable.

Elijah and the Messiah

The best-known legend in the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) that derives from Elijah’s role as messianic herald has a comparable element of mystery. Unlike the story of Rav Yossi, it is not funny, but it carries heavy ironic weight. After an enigmatic encounter with Elijah at Rabbi Shimon bar Yo?ai’s tomb, Rabbi Joshua asks about his own salvation and asks:

"When will Messiah come?"

He said to him, "Go ask him."

"And where [is he]?"

"He sits at the gate of Rome."

"And how will I know him?"

"He sits among the poor who suffer from diseases, and all of them loosen their bandages and tie up them all at once; he loosens one and ties one at a time. He says, ‘Perhaps I will be needed [at any moment] so I should not be delayed.’"

Rabbi Joshua goes immediately to Rome—his journey assumed rather than described—recognizes the Messiah among the poor, and goes up to him.

He said to him, "Peace be with you, my master and teacher."

"Peace be with you, son of Levi."

"When are you coming, Sir?"

"Today."

Afterward, Rabbi Joshua goes to Elijah (whether in Rome or back home is unsaid) and bursts out in painful accusation: "Surely he lied to me, for he told me, ‘Today.’"

Elijah responds, "Today, if you will hear His voice." Elijah is not merely expanding on the Messiah’s words, but quoting Psalm 95:7, "We are His people, and the flock of His pasture—today, if you [plural] will hear His voice." In other words, the Messiah will come only as soon as the Jewish people accept their role as God’s flock and obey his voice. Then Elijah asks Rabbi Joshua a question:

"What did he say to you?"

"Peace be with you son of Levi."

He said to him, "He promised you and your father the world to come."

(B. Sanhedrin 98a, following Florence and Munich manuscripts)

I quote rather than paraphrase this story because the images invoked by its stark language are unforgettable. No one, having heard it, can forget the Messiah standing among the diseased beggars at the gate of Rome, suffering yet stubbornly optimistic. One is immediately struck by Joshua’s angry outburst, "He lied to me!" Only a little later, the irony of the whole encounter sinks in. Elijah tells the rabbi how to recognize the Messiah by describing his behavior: He has a characteristic way of unwrapping and rewrapping his sores one by one precisely because he does not know when he will be called. So Elijah, who does not know when the Messiah will come, sends Rabbi Joshua to ask the Messiah, who does not know either.

Nor can one overlook the place where the Messiah suffers. He sits at the gate of Rome, the nation that destroyed of Jerusalem, which even for Babylonian Jews was the symbol of all that is unredeemed in the world. Nevertheless, Elijah’s interpretation of the Messiah’s response, "Today, if you will hear His voice," puts responsibility for redeeming the world squarely in Jewish hands. The might of Rome is not what stands between the present and the coming of the Messiah; rather, the Jewish people must repent and return to God. This may be taken as encouraging or discouraging news, but it does assert that Jewish devotion has power over destiny, even though the world, then as now, considered raw power more important than the ethics and piety of the oppressed.

Yet many things about this story remain unexplained. Rabbi Joshua’s question about his personal salvation is a very rare one in rabbinic texts, particularly in comparison to the texts of Patristic Christianity in the same era. Why does it come up here? How does Joshua ben Levi’s concern for his own salvation fit in with his desire to know when the Messiah will come and his quest to ask the Messiah himself?

We can partially explain these questions by examining the history of the story. No one created it from scratch, but rather some unknown author or preacher made a story based on a set of preexisting interpretations of Scripture, especially of "Today, if you will hear His voice," which was already attributed to Rabbi Joshua ben Levi. The questions that remain unanswered stem in part from how the story came into being. It was most likely composed orally in a cultural context now lost to us. Thus its written version is very likely not complete, but appears as what John Foley, a leading scholar in oral-formulaic studies today, calls a libretto: notes for performance rather than a complete product (see Foley, The Singer of Tales in Performance, pp. 46, 66).

The Elijah Stories as Folklore

Some of the techniques I use to study the Elijah stories come from oral-formulaic studies, a discipline that draws from both literature and folklore studies. It focuses on poetry or prose, ancient or modern, meant to be recited or read out loud and mostly created by trained specialists in cultures that value the spoken word. Rabbinic literature certainly fits this definition. In examining the roles of writing and speaking in rabbinic times, we find that the Bavli describes teaching and study, social events and legal cases, all happening without writing or reading. The Talmud advocates memorizing and reciting rather than writing and reading the Oral Torah, rabbinic teaching, as opposed to Written Torah, Scripture. In fact, the whole Talmud is presented as a series of conversations among Rabbis, and thus the whole text testifies to the basically oral culture and traditions of the Sages.

On the other hand, because the Talmud comes to us in written form, it is impossible to say that any particular story was composed or transmitted completely orally. The key point for this book is that the Elijah stories, as a whole, were once stories told by the Rabbis themselves, and thus the stories, as a whole, can tell us things about rabbinic culture. They testify to commonly held rabbinic beliefs about Elijah as well as those of particular writers or editors. Seeing the Elijah stories as derived, directly or indirectly, from oral traditions of storytelling and preaching lets one compare Elijah with other mediators between God and humanity in both Judaism and other traditions of the same era. Rabbis and non-rabbis, Jews and non-Jews, shared stories even though they did not share technical aspects of law or scriptural interpretation. Traditions of supernatural mediators, whether gods, saints, or angels, entertained and inspired the interacting oral cultures of late antiquity. Comparing Elijah stories to tales of other supernatural mediators within Judaism allows us to consider what makes Elijah like these other figures and what makes him special. Similarly, comparing Elijah to non-Jewish supernatural mediators allows us to explore what Jewish culture had in common with surrounding societies and what made it unique.

Over the course of the book, I compare Elijah to mediators that he might be expected to resemble, such as angels, Christian saints, and saintly rabbis, and find some resemblances, especially to the Sages. I also discuss two unexpected figures who have interesting parallels to Elijah: the angel of death and the Greek god Hermes. Both Elijah and the angel of death have a relative freedom of action, and a corresponding fallibility, compared to other angels. In both cases, it seems, it was important to remove God from direct responsibility for the actions of the these beings. In the case of the angel of death, God can be at least psychologically removed from directly causing every death. In the case of Elijah, God is removed from directly choosing whom to help and whom not to, which might make the divine will seem arbitrary. Elijah’s resemblances to Hermes, on the other hand, lie in their shared roles. They range from guiding the dead and frequenting graveyards to providing money. These correspondences are numerous enough to suggest some competitive cultural borrowing, along the lines of "our prophet is better than your so-called god."

Form criticism is another useful technique that follows from the idea that the Elijah stories have oral roots. Form criticism of narrative involves identifying and analyzing repeated patterns in wording and plot structure to determine relationships among stories and perhaps their earlier history. In this book form criticism is used with the literary perspective of oral-formulaic studies. Oral-formulaic studies emphasizes that narrative patterns are much more than labels for various genres of story—they are essential tools for conveying meaning and generating expectations with very few words. The commonest modern examples are jokes, for example: "So and so dies and goes up to the heavenly gates and meets St. Peter . . . " This format is so common that even Jewish people will use it, sometimes substituting a more Jewishly appropriate keeper of the keys to heaven. This plot formula, in which someone dies and meets the doorkeeper at the gate of heaven, immediately tells the hearer about the story line: this will be a joke, often with religious content and often including ethnic or political satire; it will not be bawdy; and it will almost certainly revolve around whether the dead person will get into heaven.

More than jokes and anecdotes in late antiquity circulated by word of mouth. As is still true in Hasidic circles today, sacred legends were told and retold, the Elijah stories among them. Most of the longer Elijah stories can be divided into three categories by formulaic phrasing and content. Stories in the first category, represented by the "antimartyrdom" of Rabbi Eleazar ben Perata, tell of Elijah arriving in disguise to rescue Jews in danger, usually from Gentile violence. These stories always contain the phrase "he appeared to him," only used for supernatural figures appearing in disguise. Stories in the second category, or "generic group," are represented by the story of Rav Anan, whom Elijah refuses to visit because of his slight judicial faux pas. In this set of stories Elijah stops appearing to someone because of something that person did wrong or appears to one person and not to another who is less virtuous. Rav Yossi’s disagreement with Elijah over whether the prophet is hot tempered is also part of this group, or perhaps a joke based on it. The next generic group is more diverse. Its opening formula always states that someone met Elijah and asked him a question, generally a question that only Elijah would be able to answer. After that, the stories take many forms, because an answered question can lead in many directions, even Rabbi Joshua’s trip to Rome to meet the Messiah.

Elijah Stories as a Window on Rabbinic Culture and Theology

The three generic groups of Elijah stories, taken as a whole, provide us with unique insights into rabbinic culture. While any isolated story tells us mostly about its individual composer, these groups, each with its own stable verbal formula, its shared plot motifs, and its characteristic theme or themes, provide a window into perceptions of Elijah that were widely distributed within the rabbinic subculture and, perhaps, within the wider Jewish society the Rabbis shared. We can better understand the Judaism of the time simply by considering that Elijah is a supernatural mediator who is as much or more a teacher and ethical guide than a savior. Elijah’s activities reinforce rabbinic society’s emphasis on learning and ethics and its relative deemphasis of earthly miracles and after-death salvation.

The generic group in which Elijah refuses to visit someone emphasizes ethical behavior and human responsibility. In these stories Elijah makes it clear, by ceasing or refusing to visit, that certain actions are unacceptable to him. Often the erring parties, as rabbis or simply pious Jews, are aware of Elijah’s absence because they had a connection with him before he left, temporarily or for good. In a story in the Talmud Yerushalmi, Elijah deserts Rabbi Joshua ben Levi for a time, and on the prophet’s return the rabbi defends his action, saying, "I acted according to the law." Elijah, in turn, retorts, "is this the law of the truly devout?" (Y. Terumot 46b). This question echoes throughout this whole generic group, in which Elijah silently advocates a higher ethical standard, beyond Jewish law, that is incumbent on the truly devout and righteous person.

Furthermore, the idea that the truly devout and righteous can be visited by Elijah reinforced the rabbinic sense that ethical behavior—even beyond what was required—was necessary for deep intellectual or spiritual insight. These legends encouraged such virtuous behavior. They also at times imply a certain rabbinic noblesse oblige. In a number of these stories, Elijah deserts people for not being good or helpful to their social inferiors, but he does not abandon anyone for failures in humility toward them. Thus many of the stories, while morally admirable, nevertheless advocate a hierarchical society with rabbis at its apex.

In contrast, the generic group in which Elijah appears in disguise celebrates freedom rather than emphasizing ethical responsibility and proper social relationships. These stories, more than the other two generic groups, have a potential inspiration in physical events: occasions in which help arose for a rabbi from an unexpected source, perhaps from a Gentile court official who was expected to be hostile. Rabbis apparently thought of these occasions as the intervention of Elijah in disguise—or at least they appreciated stories in which Elijah appeared as the real savior. The most common setting of these stories, during the Roman persecutions after the destruction of the Temple and the Bar Kokhba revolt, suggests that the genre arose in the first and second centuries of the common era. One cannot rule out, however, the possibility that the genre arose later and was retrojected into the legendary past. In either case, the stories in the Bavli were told and retold for generations before they reached the written form we possess.

The help that God sends through Elijah in these stories is unexpected and unpredictable in form. It thus expresses a common theme in the Bavli, that the righteous can receive unforeseen divine help. Elijah’s saving appearance cannot be predicted or requested, but it is the more miraculous, and the more welcome, for that. This is not to say that awed gratitude is the dominant tone of the most characteristic stories in this generic group. Several of these stories have a playful quality, an apparent desire to amuse and astonish their readers and hearers as well as educate and inspire them.

When Elijah appears in disguise, he breaks the rules of the world, if not the rules of the Rabbis. For an oppressed and colonized people, Elijah breaks the rules of the rulers’ game in which Romans (or the Persians who ruled Babylonia) always win and the Jews always lose. Elijah in disguise opens up the world, introduces unforeseen possibilities and unpredictable freedoms. He comes as a benign trickster, usually making fools of Gentile oppressors, and sometimes fooling those whom he saves as well (as when he saves Rabbi Meir from Roman soldiers by taking the form of a prostitute and embracing him). Elijah is a free agent and a force for freedom, embodying the liberating power of divine mercy for individuals within the Jewish community. The folkloric motif underlying these stories is that of Elijah as patron and trickster, and champion of Jews in a risky world ruled by Gentiles.

The treatment of this generic group in the Bavli, however, implies a society that thought Divine intervention in human troubles was rare and undependable. All but one of the Bavli’s stories of rescue by Elijah in disguise are set in pre-Talmudic times, implying such miracles are more part of the glorious past than the mundane present. In the twenty-first century it may seem odd to describe a society that believes in miracles at all as pragmatic and human centered. Elijah’s actions, however, reveal the practical tendencies of rabbinic society, which emphasized the miraculous much less than Christian societies of the same time.

The third generic group, in which a rabbi meets Elijah and asks a question, is not as clearly defined as the other two. The former two groups each have a characteristic plot structure: Elijah abandons someone who has acted wrongly, or he appears to help someone in danger or difficulty. When someone meets and questions Elijah, on the other hand, Elijah may teach or share secret knowledge on a wide variety of subjects. Some of the stories are barely narratives at all, only settings for a memorable saying; others have more developed plots of various kinds. Nevertheless, there are significant details that unify this group. Each of these stories begins with a verbal formula usually employed when one rabbi meets another rabbi who has some special knowledge. Elijah thus appears as a teacher, an immortal Sage who is friend to the Sages. Furthermore, in this generic group Elijah’s words and actions are always positive. He generally comes to teach or encourage and never comes to actively punish sin or discourage human initiative.

One motif found in a number of stories in this group, enough to suggest it is the product of Babylonian rabbinic culture as a whole, is the use of Elijah to

support and encourage human power and particularly rabbinic power and freedom to legislate and to interpret. Two stories in this group explicitly stress the freedom of individual Sages to interpret Scripture, one saying that mutually contradictory views are both "words of the Living God." Here, one can see Elijah as a supernatural supporter of rabbinic thinking. His appearance to instruct, like his appearance in disguise to rescue, comes unexpectedly, welcome but unpredictable.

Elijah’s most important function, in these three generic groups and in the Elijah stories as a whole, is to support right relationship between individuals and God. Elijah provides a channel for communication with God, answering the rabbis who ask, "what is the Holy Blessed One doing?" and relaying the rabbis’ responses back to God. When Elijah tells Rabbah bar Shila that God is not reciting the traditions of Rabbi Meir because he learned from A?er the apostate, Rabbah bar Shila defends Rabbi Meir. Immediately afterward, Elijah comes back to tell Rabbah that God has conceded the point and is now to reciting Meir’s teaching (B. ?agigah 15b). It is hard to know today what to make of such far-reaching human authority. We may recognize the self-assertion of Rabbah bar Shila in his defense of Rabbi Meir, but we do not necessarily understand the story’s conclusion that God responded well to it.

It helps somewhat to consider that Elijah is in many ways a more powerful version of the rabbinic Sage. Elijah has individual free choice combined with deep knowledge of God’s will, with which he is usually, but not always, completely in harmony. The Rabbis of the two Talmuds had a complex image of God that could encompass God adorning a bride (Eve) or visiting the sick (Abraham). God was supremely powerful, but also mourned the destruction of Jerusalem and went into exile with His people. The Rabbis turned to traditions of the eternally living prophet Elijah and used them as raw material envisioning a supernatural mediator in line with their own spiritual aspirations and with their image of themselves. Like the Sages themselves, the Elijah of the Talmud is in some sense a partner of God, engaged in the great work that would come to be called tikkun olam, the repair of the world.

The Structure of This Book

This book has two major parts. In part 1, chapters 1 and 2, I focus on the work of previous scholars and on my own view of how to understand the role of oral culture in rabbinic stories. Chapter 1 discusses previous scholarship on Elijah and on folklore and form criticism in rabbinic literature. Chapter 2 describes the oral nature of rabbinic culture and its role in forming the character of the Elijah stories. These chapters also cover methodology: why I chose particular methods for analyzing the stories. In part 2, chapters 3 and 4, I give two different perspectives on the rabbinic Elijah. Chapter 3 studies Elijah as a supernatural mediator in relation to comparable figures and chapter 4 fully describes the generic groups of Elijah stories, analyzing examples from each one. Chapter 5 forms the conclusion: it reviews Elijah’s role in the Talmud and briefly surveys the later career of Elijah in Judaism, including a few more ideas about what Elijah legends have to teach us about rabbinic culture and later Judaism as well.

Readers who bought this book to learn about Elijah may want to read the start of chapter 1 and then skip to chapter 3. In the long run, however, I hope you will return to the beginning, especially chapter 2, as the rabbinic Elijah is best understood in his cultural and literary context.

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About the Author

Kristen H. Lindbeck is an associate professor of Jewish studies at Florida Atlantic University and received her doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

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